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The RoBlog
Saturday, December 11, 2004
The Usability Explosion and the Heavy Approach to Technology Review
Here's a comment I left at Future Now on a post having to do with the apparent explosion of usability books, and on how technology should be reviewed before being released:

My own guess as to why usability is getting such focus is basically twofold: 1) The maturation of the Web as a tool front end; and, 2) The increased speed at which different products that perform the same function, and new products that perform new functions, is getting to market.

In the halcyon days of the VCR, interfaces that came from an engineering group as the end point of function (as seen by them) had a relatively small social cost. New products simply took longer to get to market, and were expected to stay on the market longer. Relatedly, there were not many other product types that competed for basically the same functionality. Interfaces could be revved over time when it made economic sense, and when someone happened to improve on existing metaphors.

Since the web began to be used seriously by corporations as an interface to communicate with customers, and to have customers participate more directly in processes, it became critical that new users could understand how to use an interface in a relatively short period of time. This has meant that there was economic incentive for a class of workers to take up the study of interface design and usability. More people in this line of work increase the probability that more people will apply this outside their original domain.

At the same time, product developers have significantly less ability for function to win out over usability as products come to market quickly and often face competition from other products built for entirely different markets. Consumers need to "get it" faster to get at the underlying functionality in a way that is useful to them. Witness the explosion of the iPod whose success in no small part had to do with the introduction of an intuitive interface metaphor.

Finally, of course, is the increased complexity of the functionality introduced in modern devices. It is my belief that we will continue to see products evolve in a manner where pressing "Play" may be too much of an oversimplification to be useful as what new products do become more sophisticated, inter-related, and subtle.

On a different point, I'd like to disagree with the idea that we need to discuss the "ends [a technology] will serve is before we deploy it." Coming up with a reason for being for a technology before it is ever created is not just inefficient thinking, but I would argue, counter to human nature in ways that would be difficult to put the breaks on.

It has been my observation that often the most interesting uses of a technology are the ones that no one thought of until it was launched. The people building a technology are not always the best people (for good or ill) to determine what it can be best used for. Now since the web site said nothing about having the creators do the discussing necessarily, I should also say that it would be significantly difficult for a technology that is in some sort of review period to get the attention of the kinds of people that might extend it elegantly. It would be very difficult to review all proposed technologies to determine what interesting things you could do with it, and frequently it requires a period of people getting used to how a new technology works - what it's all about - before the really good ideas spring forth. Equally likely is that tranformative technologies need a period of maturation before they arrive at a point (either technically, or through adoption) that new ideas can take root.

This is not to say, however, that it's not worth talking about these things AS they are being deployed, and after, and the good thing is that people actually tend to do this. I think what would be most useful would be if we had a good methodology for picking out the valid arguments about a technology from the noise and allow that to feed back into the system, either voluntarily, or via regulation where appropriate.

I guess what I'm saying is that waiting to get all of your ducks in a row before releasing a technology doesn't feel right. Rather an iterative approach of some sort might fit the bill very well.
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